Two games with similarly chequered and lengthy creations, both from well-respected and iconic Japanese developers and releasing within weeks of each other. The Last Guardian and Final Fantasy XV both finally became available to fans at the end of 2016 and have received glowing praise from various sources. But which one do I think was better, and therefore should officially be declared the greatest by all?
A bit of personal background first of all for the two titles. I have criminally not played either Ico or Shadow of the Colossus (I know, I know….) therefore this would be the first of my ventures into a Fumita Ueda title. Obviously I am fully aware of the qualities of the previous two games, both of which lauded for their story-telling prowess.
The Final Fantasy series however holds one of the top spots for my favourite series of all time. I won’t claim to be a super-fan who has played every mainstream entry as well as all the spin-offs but I certainly know my Tonberry from my Malboro. The first FF game I played was VIII and has controversially remained my favourite ever since.
On to the current entries then and Final Fantasy XV was first up as a pre-ordered day one purchase for me. Having not watched either the film (Kingsglaive) or online series (Brotherhood) relating to the game beforehand I went in rather blind on any of the lore or characters dominating the plot, as I would do for any other game. Final Fantasy narratives are confusing at the best of times but even more so when given only bits and pieces of story elements through broken snippets of the film used in-game and the use of a cute dog as a form of pen-pal service. As the game progressed I managed to claim a stronger hold on what the hell was going on, but the last third fell of a cliff in many ways and required further online reading to fully understand what I’d witnessed.
The Last Guardian took the complete opposite and much more effective approach of giving the player as little information as possible to begin with, and carrying that on for most of the game until the time was right. With the two characters made up of a young human boy and an enormous mythological beast, the interaction between the two is clearly far from simple. However through the actions of Trico, the setting they find themselves in and the interaction with enemies the story is told with only the odd narration from the older version of the boy. These short voice-overs only really explain what is happening on screen, as everything else is displayed visually to the player. Not only that but there is a genuine emotional attachment to the events, never forced upon by what happens on screen but by this unique style of story-telling.
Final Fantasy XV follows Prince Noctis, next in line to the throne of Lucis along with his best friend and selfie-lover Prompto, as well as his two bodyguards: the bulky, traditionally gigantic sword-wielding Gladiolos and down-to-Earth and incredibly British Ignis. Noctis looks like the typical Final Fantasy protagonist, with his cheerless demeanour and wind-swept hair but he does have some wit and characterisation about him . Once the story quickly turns south for his family he’s understandably upset – not enough to stop by for some quality fishing time though! Prompto isn’t as annoying as he looks or you’re led to believe from the off, Gladio (as he’s referred to) has the typically gruff voice and stoic attitude to life, while Ignis is one magnificent chef as he manages to ‘whip up’ extraordinary meals from basic ingredients all around a campfire. He is also the most level-headed of the four and often the voice of reason in times of trouble. Other than Noctis (who obviously gains the most attention) the other three don’t really develop in any way or receive anything like a character arc, other than an inexplicable injury later on. The closest we get to any development from them arrives after the occasional tap on the shoulder of their Prince to invite him for some kind of recreational activity like running or cooking. The other problem I have with the foursome is the lack of distinction between the lot of them. I don’t want to compare this to all previous entries of the series but what they do all have is a varied party full of totally different characters. However here we are presented with four twenty-something guys with a similar-ish outlook on life, with similar fighting styles and almost identical clothing (that vest-jacket combo must be the all the rage on Eos).
The boy of Last Guardian doesn’t say much, and Trico says even less. Yet their characterisations and journey together through the ancient weathered buildings builds a relationship between the two in such an original and rarely-seen format that just works so well. Of course the whole game is built around the relationship between the two, but Square also pushed this idea heavily before and during their game as well. This relationship isn’t forced but naturally progresses, from helping Trico out of a chain to having it (the gender is never fully realised) catch the boy from a fatal fall, and much more. They both find themselves in an area they want to escape, so have to rely on each other to begin with but they soon end up wanting it no other way.
Now let’s just talk about Trico. Not only is the beast incredibly cute just to look at anyway, but you begin to treat it like an actual pet the more time you spend with it. I even found myself saying “Come on, come here” and other ridiculous things to this make-believe animal. If the boy hurts himself, Trico will nudge him with his nose to check he’s ok, may occasionally need a bit of ‘alone time’ and doesn’t always do as it’s told. It’s probably the best videogame character of 2016 in my opinion and that’s without it even saying a word. As you can expect, things don’t always go swimmingly for the two friends and when Trico is in peril I felt a genuine sense of angst. It may have taken years over Trico’s creation but the developers certainly nailed it.
Eos is the world in which FFXV is played out, although you’d mistake most of it for the outback of the United States. Being an open-world game means having a lot of room to play with therefore you’re in need of some sort of transportation. The Regalia (see below) is that transportation and while the idea of a road trip seems like a good one to begin with, the execution certainly isn’t. With manoeuvrability best described as ‘on rails’, and reaching a top speed of 50mph to begin with, the car is only fun to begin with as you jam along to older FF tunes, but soon enough you will find that fast travelling will surely take over. After a certain point in the story, the games does become completely linear as well, in much the opposite way of FFXIII, which is a huge shame.
One feature that particularly stuck in my craw was that of the city Altissia. An exquisitely elegant and beautifully crafted city, only a fraction of which we are able to explore. These areas in which Noct and his buddies can run around is so devoid of features, people to talk to, side quests or anything at all is incredibly disappointing. There’s the odd shop, a fishing spot, a restaurant, and an arena where you can bet on daemon fights, but that’s about it. You also have to traverse from various areas by boat that is quite nice once, but so painfully slow that you’ll end up skipping to your destination every other time. A enormous missed opportunity.
The Valley in which The Last Guardian is set is a beautiful yet crumbling arrangement of towers and gardens set within some sort of crater in the middle of a huge forest. The reason for the isolation becomes clear but all the boy knows to begin with is that he’s stuck here with this intimidating beast, and the only way to traverse the huge gaps between buildings is to climb aboard his new friend and scale the buildings together. Once out in the open, the game does shudder slightly and will perhaps irk some players as Trico jumps from one collapsing bridge to another, with a bit too much on screen for the game to process. Inside, the buildings do begin to look repetitive, with some sections even re-visited on more than one occasion.
Having said all this, I did enjoy my 70 hours or so with Final Fantasy XV believe it or not. To spend that much time with a game, including a continuation of quests after the credits roll (despite their unbelievable monotony) means I must have found something positive from the experience. And I did! I had some major concerns about the combat beforehand but it turned out pretty fun, if a little repetitive. Although there is limited control over what anyone other than Noctis does during battle, and the over-riding feeling that Noct is the only guy actually making an impact in a fight there is still a sense of fun from unleashing your royal powers on the enemies, with the effect of weapons appearing from thin air a cool and aesthetically pleasing effect.
By far the best aspect of the game however is the summons, despite yet more shortcomings in this area too. Described as Astrals this time around, there are only actually four available to summon within normal battles despite the appearance of two more during the story. Actually summoning them also requires various stipulations including your surrounding area and the remaining health of your team-mates, but once you do you’re greeted with a truly epic cut-scene that will wipe out all but the strongest of enemies in one hit. The accompanying orchestral music reaches its peak here as well and every time they turn up is a genuine joy.
The combat sections in The Last Guardian are mainly confined to escaping some armour-clad humanoid beings until you can open a gate or make your way through to Trico so that the beast can swipe his paws or just crush them. As per almost every section though the main challenge here is to solve the puzzle in which to allow Trico to have at them, but unlike most puzzle games the player needs timing as well as a sharp mind to overcome the obstacles. Outside of combat there is plenty of traversal among huge buildings as I’ve mentioned, which can be beautiful at times but also comes with its own pitfalls. Most of the time the boy is required to cling on to Trico while it leaps across ravines or up ledges, as well as eventually issuing commands by pointing or jumping. Due to the basic level of interaction, much like with a real pet, Trico doesn’t always do exactly what you want it to which brings an idiosynchratic charm to the relationship, but can be grating later on in the game. As you may have heard, the camera and the controls are far from perfect which perhaps can be reasoned from the lengthy development and dated production methods. I didn’t find the camera too much of a problem for the most part, but scrambling up and down Trico or ledges as the boy was incredibly finicky at times. Jumping off the hybrid animal was a challenge in itself, with some very obscure ragdoll physics put to use when doing so.
Despite the similarities in production and over-arching morales, the two games are clearly very different with one being a 50-hour open-world RPG and the other a 12-hour puzzle-platformer. To that end there are certain aspects of each game that relate to the overall enjoyment without being able to compare them to the other game.
There are plenty more characters in Final Fantasy XV other than the famous foursome, but none of them really have any unique or memorable positive features. The one that will spring to most boys’ minds would be Cindy, the mechanic for the Regalia who has chosen to show a ludicrous amount of skin while sounding like a bad actress trying to do a hyperbolic American accent. The antagonist is sharply dressed but a huge part of the nonsensical plot, while the love interest Lunafreya hardly has a scene with her husband-to-be Noctis, forcing the player to struggle to care for them as a genuine couple. Anyone else is hardly worth writing about. The voice actors for the English version are fine, at best, but not helped by poor dialogue.
Most Western RPG’s nowadays have multiple expansive sidequests that keep the player entertained while not pushing the main story forward and can often rival or overpass the main quest in quality. Square have attempted to emulate this in their Japanese role-playing game but have reduced all side quests to monotonous fetch or kill quests. With travel being the chore it is, these quests become just an excuse to gain XP, where the developers seem to have replaced grinding through battles to level up with grinding through side quests – which would be fine if they were of any interest.
Of course, all the marketing and majority of the adventure in The Last Guardian revolves around Trico. Usually in companion-style games (such as Resident Evil 4, Bioshock Infinite) the player is control of the powerhouse, the one with all the guns or the shield in which to protect the smaller helpless individual. This game has switched that mechanic with excellent results, and created a stronger bond between the two characters than almost any game to date. Trico is your only way home, your protector and your friend all in one, with the appearance and actions of a household pet at times. It seems from what the developers have admitted that his occasional disobedience is intentional, which can be annoying at times, but he also tends to look or scratch in the direction he wants the boy to go which can help. Overall Trico is a one-of-a-kind videogame character that produces feelings you won’t feel anywhere else, most of which may actually be positive.
If it’s not clear by now which game I enjoyed the most – relative to the time spent with each – then The Last Guardian is certainly my preferred choice. However, I did spend a large amount of time with Final Fantasy XV and can’t say I was really too bored for any projected amount of time, other than one particular and now infamous chapter towards the end (which was truly horrendous). FFXV is a beautiful, modern, fantastical adventure that harks back to the previous entries without relying on them. However, the bar has been raised for open-world RPG’s that it doesn’t threaten to reach. Storytelling, voice-acting and side quests are all an important role now in this genre and it fails in each of those.
The Last Guardian clambered into my top three games of 2016 with its wonderful and touching story with a genuinely satisfying payoff, sombre atmosphere and truly amazing mythological dog/cat/bird beast of a character in Trico. There are a few technical issues that may annoy or frustrate many players (myself included at times) but the positives more than make up for it.